Bimal Roy's Parineeta (The Married Woman, 1953) is based on a 1914 novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay (or Chatterji, as the film's titles have it), who also wrote Devdas. And there are some striking parallels between the two stories. (Of course, two years after Parineeta Roy also filmed a famous version of Devdas.)
Shekhar (Ashok Kumar), the son of a wealthy Brahmin family, discovers that he's fallen in love with Lalita (Meena Kumari), the young ward of the family in the neighboring house. Shekhar has known Lalita since she was eight years old and came to live with her uncle Gurucharan and his wife after the death of her parents. The two families live in connecting houses, and Lalita spends as much time in Shekhar's household as in her own. Shekhar has taken on the role of teasing elder brother to Lalita—we first see her doing lessons at Shekhar's desk. But Lalita has now grown into a beautiful young woman, and Shekhar's feelings have become more tender. (In the novel Lalita is 13 (!); Meena Kumari was 20 at the time of filming.)
Shekhar's grasping father Navin (Badriprasad) has other plans for Shekhar, however. He wants to arrange his marriage with the daughter of Choudary, another wealthy Brahmin who has promised Navin a dowry of 10,000 rupees. Shekhar's mother Bhuvaneshwari (the striking Pratima Devi), though, defies Navin and insists that Shekhar must choose his own bride:
Shekhar makes his choice when Lalita's young cousin is staging a marriage for her dolls. Wedding garlands are made, and Lalita playfully garlands Shekhar. He then meaningfully places a garland on her to complete the ritual.
Lalita tries to resist, but Shekhar confesses his love:
From this moment on, Lalita considers herself married to Shekhar. Immediately afterwards, all the girls of the family sing "the auspicious song" for the marriage of the dolls, but Lalita hears every verse as though it is meant for her:
Lalita's uncle Gurucharan (Nazir Husein) is overdue on repaying a loan to Navin. Gurucharan needed the money to pay the ruinous dowry for the marriage of one of his daughters, and now can't even pay the interest on the loan. While Navin becomes more and more insistent in his demands for payment, secretly he's pleased: Gurucharan has put up his house as collateral, and once Navin can seize it he plans to evict his troublesome neighbors, raze their home and build a second house.
To the rescue comes Giren (Asit Baran), the kind, good-looking, wealthy and lower-caste uncle of Lalita's friend Charu. Giren too is smitten with Lalita, and when he learns of Guruchand's plight he gives him the money to repay Navin—without interest. Enraged by the thwarting of his plans and by rumors that Lalita will marry Giren, Navin erects a wall between the two houses. The wall seems to be mainly a symbolic gesture, as Lalita and her cousins still enter Shekhar's house whenever they want:
Shekhar also hears the rumors of Lalita's marriage, and is deeply hurt:
Gurucharand takes his family away so that they don't have to live in proximity to Navin; the haunting "Chali Radhe Rani" (music by Arun Kumar Mukharji, lyrics by Bharat Vyas) echoes the anguish of the two lovers:
Shekhar finally consents to the engagement with Choudary's daughter; when news reaches Lalita, she returns with her family and tries to speak to Shekhar, but he refuses to hear what she has to say:
Will Shekhar agree to a loveless marriage? Will Lalita finally accept the kind and generous Giren? Will the families be reconciled, or remain forever at odds?
Parineeta is beautifully observed and structured. Roy's depiction of the two households is humane and deeply sympathetic, and all of the principle actors give excellent performances. (I was especially delighted by Lalita's vivacious 9-year-old cousin, I believe played by Baby Sheela—someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)
The problem with Parineeta is Shekhar. Like Devdas, he's petulant, spoiled, a bit cowed by his domineering father, and so convinced of his own righteousness that he doesn't bother to listen to anyone else. Throughout the second half of the film I was hoping that Lalita would realize that she would be better off with the devoted and selfless Giren. But my own wishes for an alternative ending aside, Parineeta richly deserves its classic status.
One final note: the "Bollywood Platinum Collection" DVD of Parineeta is taken directly from a not very pristine VHS source. Be forewarned that, as you can see from some of the stills, the image quality is not very good, and at times you can see places where the tape was creased or damaged.